Years before the bastards at MGM thought it would be a good idea to spoof 30s hits with a cast of depressed-looking canines, Hal Roach conceived of the Dippy-Do-Dads, a troupe of assorted animals, including a family of capuchin monkeys, whose adventures were not much more charming or wittily conceived than the Dogville inmates’, but who at least did all their own acting without the aid of wirework (puppeteering dogs in trousers with piano wire would get you arrested today — in the good old 30s it got you a Hollywood contract and all the Chum you could eat).
GO WEST is actually pretty close to the Buster Keaton feature of the same name, except where it comes to laughs. The comedy here comes from the sheer bizarreness of the monkey civilisation concocted on the “Lot of Fun” at Roach Studios, and from little incidental details. Where the Dogville films try to stage-manage every action with wires, peanut butter on the dogs’ gums, and much editing, Roach’s monkeys, dog and goats perform their scenes with apparent spontaneity. Lord knows what inhumane training methods may have been used, but at least the films’ respect the participants as animate creatures, rather than dangling them from the rafters like marionettes.
This results in some good, strange moments. When father monkey scolds junior for his drinking habits, he rattles the bed frame in a pantomimic representation of fury — but pauses to high-five his erring progeny in a manner completely out of keeping with the emotional tenor of the scene. Having gone west, Junior shows his good heart by dropping a coin in a beggar’s cup, but in departing the scene, steps right on the cup, something that seems bizarre when all his other behaviour is so convincingly human.
These surreal touches, enhanced by the preponderance of flies crawling everywhere, breathe real life into the scenario. (It’s the most flyblown movie I’ve ever seen, apart from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. You’d think the Dogville series would be more a-buzz, but no.)
And then, as if a monkey wild west weren’t transgressive enough, our hero stops to buy some western duds, and meets the town tailor, A.B. Bloom…
Fiona, with her interest in animal intelligence (currently being channelled into a new screenplay), points to the following experiment to give you an insight into the sophistication of the capuchin monkey mind. The whole thing’s worth watching, but the bit with monkeys at 12.45 is astonishing in its implications and very funny in its delivery.
“They don’t exploit apes in films so much now, but they’re still using monkeys,” says Fiona.
“And dogs,” I add, helpfully.
“And dogs. So where do you draw the line?”
“Mickey Rourke,” I reply without hesitation.
GO WEST is available to buy with its namesake, here: Battling Butler / Go West (Ultimate 2-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray]